June 10th 1897

It was a grim day when this bizarre event happened in small-town North Dakota.

According to Atlas Obscura, the Ringling Brothers Circus came to Wahpeton in the summer of 1897.

A day that many North Dakota families looked forward to quickly turned into a tragedy. On this day, a major storm came through the town, and while a storm may not be particularly unusual, this storm is one North Dakotans would be talking about for decades to come.


The Storm

Storm clouds rolled into the town of Wahpeton; in most circumstances like this, you would close down the show due to safety concerns. Unfortunately, that didn't happen on this day.

If you've ever been to a circus, you know what to expect: animals, clowns, fire acts, and it all takes place under a large tent. What holds up a tent? -- A large metal pole.

The Show Must Go On

According to the source, the circus was struggling this season. Financial issues lead those in charge to make a decision that would later have deadly consequences.

The source claims two men, Charles Smith and Charles Walters, were tasked with placing the pole into position. This is something that might be dangerous on a normal day, but it was especially dangerous on this one. They had created a massive lightning rod. Before the two men were able to finish placing the pole, lightning struck.

The source indicates that the two men were killed instantly. Three others were stunned. One of those stunned later died of his injuries.


The Crazier Part?

Despite this horrible incident happening, the show went on as scheduled. The source says they even decided to do the parade during a torrential downpour. Horse-drawn carriages got stuck, so much so that elephants had to pull them out.

Google maps
Google maps

The Pole Still Stands

If you visit Wahpeton today, you can see exactly where this tragedy happened; a granite monument was placed where the tent pole once was. It was even sculpted to look like the original tent pole, according to the source.

To this day, circus crews that stop through the area go to the monument to pay their respects.


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